surf boat

Round-bottomed rowboat designed for use in the waves, usually crewed by four rear-facing rowers and an aft-positioned "sweep steer."

The surf boat, descended from the rugged wooden dory boats long used by fishermen and whalers, was adapted for rescue purposes by the Surf Life Saving Association of Australia (SLSA) in the late 1800s, and is now used only for lifeguard training and competition. The average surf boat today is 22 feet long, four to five feet wide, made primarily of foam and molded resin-infused fiberglass, and V-shaped at both ends; buoyancy chambers in the front and back make the boats virtually unsinkable, even in heavy surf. Oars, once carved from a single piece of hardwood tiber, are made of carbon fibre.

Surf boat racing started among Sydney-area SLSA clubs during the early 1900s; in what is sometimes regarded as the first formal race, a team from Little Coogee, Sydney, won a seven-team race in a 1908 surf carnival held at Manly. The basics of surf boat racing remain nearly identical today to what they were a century ago. Teams launch their boats from the beach, paddle through the surf and around a buoy anchored about 300 yards past the surf line, and race back to shore, trying to pick up waves on the way. Australia and New Zealand, in that order, have always been the two dominate surf boat nations.

Pioneering surf moviemaker Bud Browne thrilled audiences in the 1950s with footage of wooden surf boats riding 10-foot waves and smashing into each other during a Sydney club meet. Surf boat races were also a crowd favorite during the United States Surfing Championships held in Huntington Beach from the mid-'60s to the early '70s, and continue to be a popular part of lifeguard competitions around the world. Surf boating is physically demanding and sometimes dangerous: Australians joke that the best way to pick a surf boat crew is to line prospects up in a row and throw bricks at them; the ones who don't duck are selected.